NARCOPOLIS: LOVE HIM, HATE (THE ABSENCE OF) HER

I admire almost everything about Narcopolis, a strange and intriguingly offensive novel about opium addiction in India. It was short-listed last year for the Mann Booker Prize and its author, Jeet Thayil is the first Indian writer to win the coveted ($50,000) DSC Prize for South Asian Literature .

The first sentence alone runs for 7 mesmerizing pages that in lesser hands would have been a gimmicky imitation of William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch, Junky) or Thomas de Quincey (Confessions of an English Opium-Eater).

But here the beautifully poetic Prologue flows off the page like the smoke from an opium pipe. Soon we don’t read Narcopolis — we inhale it, get hooked on it, are haunted by its unsettling, dreamlike blur. The opiate-addicted characters may have “fallen” in society’s eyes, but there is no guilt in Narcopolis, only the allure, the freedom, the obsession and the artistry of induced elation. Closing the book, we feel it’s been seeping into our pores.

Narcopolis

Narcopolis

Narcopolis follows a half-dozen opium addicts across a span of 40 years, during which a luxuriously slow-moving Bombay morphs into the fast-paced, corporatized and increasingly violent Mumbai.

Soon opium itself is transformed into a more marketable version of heroin called “The Chemical,” a drug so filled with rat poison that it blows your brains out while giving you a stupendous high.

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Random House Penguin and Amazon: Too Big and Too Fast

Every time I see that condescending actor from AT&T pretending to have fun with kids on TV, I want to strangle Random House — or no, Amazon — for pushing Bigness, Speed and MORE, MORE, MORE as the American ideal in the first place.

I know some people think the AT&T guy is cute and congenial with children, but most of the time he encourages kids to act out, then makes fun of them.

actor from A T & T with kids

actor from A T & T with kids

“It’s not complicated!” comes the steroidal AT&T announcer, and the awful message is clear: Be bigger, faster, and more hyperactive — you’ll go nuts a lot sooner than your parents. (more…)

That Sexist Mister Galbraith

The Cuckoo's Calling

You know why The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith wasn’t widely reviewed when it first came out?

Here’s my thought:

On page 15, Robin Ellacott, a “tall and curvacious” young secretary, is about to enter the office of a world-weary private investigator named Cormoran Strike for the first time. At that moment, Cormoran, a big guy around 210 pounds, rushes out the door and crashes into her.

Robin falls backward, dangerously close to the open stairwell behind her, but Cormoran “seize(s) a fistful of cloth and flesh” and, “with a wrench and a tussle,” pulls her toward him to safety.

But wait. What is it he gets hold of to save her — an arm? a coat? a belt? No, “he saved her by grabbing a substantial part of her left breast.”

Oh. He — um, wait. He reaches out, grabs her breast through a few layers of clothes and hauls her in like a marlin? Robin must weigh over 100 pounds, right? Yet he saves her from falling into the stairwell only by his grip on her … Well, I don’t think that’s possible. His hand just couldn’t get enough purchase to …

Come, Mr. Galbraith: Do your homework. Do you think breasts so literally fit the term “knockers” that one simply grabs and pulls, as though closing a door by its doorknob? (more…)

HIS FIRST MISTAKE

If you own a newspaper, try not to tell the staff you’re “committed to preserving quality journalism” and then say, “Don’t be boring.”

That’s what Jeff Bezos did at the Washington Post yesterday. I bet the 20 “hard-bitten” reporters in the room laughed (and groaned) inwardly at his amateur remark.

Jeff Bezos Point: A journalist writing a story on, say, changes in the tax code should never be burdened with an order like “Don’t be boring.” (more…)

Remembering Bill Chleboun

I’ve never known anyone in the book industry who was as loved on both coasts as Bill Chleboun (pronounced clay-bone).

Bill was my former colleague in the book review department of the San Francisco Chronicle. When he died recently of heart failure at 81, a light went out in the book world, and I don’t mean b.c. (before collapse). He was reading books on an iPad two weeks before his death.

Bill was hired by the Chronicle in 1982 to sell advertising space for the floundering Sunday Book Review section that I had been editing for about six months.

His first step was to create an honest regional best seller list, quite a phenomenon at the time. I had long believed that the tastes of Bay Area readers were far more diverse and adventurous than the New York Times best seller list reflected, and here was a way to prove it.

Every Tuesday, Bill called fifteen Bay Area booksellers and asked them what was selling in Fiction, Nonfiction, Hardcover and Paperback categories. Later they would just fax their lists in, but Bill understood the single cohesive factor at the heart of the book trade — gossip — and spent much of the day talking about authors coming through town, surprise up-and-comers, big-budget flops, impulse buys and front-of-store merchandising.

Best-Seller-List-fixedOn Wednesday, Bill called the publishers whose books were going to appear on the best seller list that Sunday and told them the good news. No one took his calls at first — marketing directors and ad managers hated talking to newspaper sales reps — so Bill started with secretaries and assistants who were glad to hear gossip from the stores and to make the announcement to their bosses that one or two of the house’s books would be listed that Sunday on some West Coast newspaper’s list.
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A Single Book Makes All the Difference

Pardon me for writing this lengthy and heartfelt column about a long-ago published book (2008), but each time I hear about brutal interrogations (did they lead to or away from Osama bin Laden, for example), I think of my favorite nonfiction title of the last three years, aside from Facebook for Dummies (not kidding), My Guantanamo Diary by Mahvish Rukhsana Khan (Public Affairs, 320 pages, $13.95).

If you wince at the word “Guantanamo” and think there’s nothing new to learn about the hellhole even Obama can’t shut down, wait until you meet the detainees from Afghanistan whom the author, an American law student who acted as translator for defense lawyers as early as 2006, came to know during more than 30 trips to and from the heavily barricaded cages that critics have called “our” Abu Ghraib.

We know from the outset we’re going to hear the by-now familiar stories of torture, hoods, stress positions and sexual humiliation; of screaming interrogators and dead-of-night batterings, of Orwellian tribunals, denial of due process and the whole, sad, shameful mess that has made Guantanamo a continuing nightmare.

But what we don’t expect in this book is humor – not gallows humor (the prisoners are already half-dead) or angry humor (they’re too resigned), but an affectionate, teasing kind of humor usually reserved for members of a close family.

Author Khan certainly didn’t expect anything light-hearted or emotionally moving when she first applied to the FBI for security clearance in 2005. An Afghan American who grew up in the United States speaking fluent Pashto with her immigrant family, Kahn was a law student in her 20s when she became concerned about the plight of prisoners from Afghanistan at Guantanamo.

Some detainees at the prison, especially those from Saudi Arabia, came from the kind of wealth that allowed their families to hire aggressive U.S. criminal defense lawyers even when the Bush administration denied them representation. But Afghanistan is such a poor country that prisoners languished for years at Guantanamo before the Supreme Court decision of 2004 gave them access to U.S. courts, and the first pro bono lawyers began setting up meetings.
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